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20 Writerly Questions Series: Allegra Goodman

abstract:The "Writerly Questions Series" is brought to you courtesy of Random House Canada who partners with BookBuffet. Look for this feature each Monday. The idea is we ask different authors the same set of questions designed to give readers a glimpse into the lives and writing mechanics of authors. (It is interesting to compare and contrast the full list to date at bottom.) Get exposed to authors that otherwise would not have come onto your radar. It's rather like shopping for a new tie or addition to your wardrobe, and never deviating from certain colors, patterns or styles. Jump out of your comfort zone. Today's author is Allegra Goodman. I first became intrigued by this author upon reading her biography on her website. All the reviewer accolades from admittedly reliable sources like The New York Times, said things that rang of hyperbole; "the next Jane Austen." So it is her real life that interested me when I began to scratch the surface... Daughter of a successful set of academic parents who I imagine never had boring dinner table conversation, (dad: philosophy prof, mom: women's studies prof). Mostly grew up in Hawaii (also cool, but in a hot-way). Uprooted to Nashville, Tennessee (Hello! Nashville?) when her parents took positions at Vanderbuilt University.Published her first story at age 17, and from there climbed her own ivory tower as an undergrad at Harvard. I don't think her answers to this series gives us as good a picture of her as it could. But see what you think. Her latest novel is The Cookbook Collector, and I think RH describe it well: "...a novel about getting and spending... the substitutions we make when we can’t find what we’re looking for: reading cookbooks instead of cooking, speculating instead of creating, collecting instead of living." Hmmm, sounds like the modern (wo)man. BTW - the Austen comparison is about sisters: Sense & Sensibility has them, Cookbook Collector's got 'em too. (Don't be turned off by the elaborate cover or the staging of her publicity photo, which to me seem a little precious. Jane Austen was a passionate observer who captured her time.)


September 27, 2010
Three of her earlier novels are: Intuition, Kaaterskill Falls, and The Family Markowitz Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and Best American Short Stories. She is a winner of the Whiting Writer’s Award and a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For more information, visit or become a fan on Facebook.

1. How would you summarize your book in one sentence?
This is a book about hunger--for food, for fame, for money, for knowledge, and above all, for love.
2. How long did it take you to write this book?
I thought about it for two years and then the actual writing took about a year and a half.
3. Where is your favorite place to write?
In a coffee shop with a cup of hot chocolate and the whole afternoon ahead of me.
4. How do you choose your characters’ names?
I write out lists and then ask a friend--what do you think of X?  It's just like naming a baby.
5. How many drafts do you go through?
There are scenes I've rewritten twenty times and scenes that I just sail through.  As far as complete drafts go, I do a complete revision before I show the manuscript to my editor.  Then with her comments I'll generally revise the whole thing twice more.
6. If there was one book you wish you had written what would it be?
If I love a book I just say--hats off to the author!  Only that person could have written it.
7. If your book were to become a movie, who would you like to see star in it?
I'll have to ask my friend Dana.  She always knows.
8. What’s your favourite city in the world?
To visit:  London.  To live in: Cambridge, Mass.
9. If you could talk to any writer living or dead who would it be, and what would you ask?
I would talk to Dickens about just where he got his amazing energy.
10. Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what kind?
I love classical music, but when I'm writing everything fades into the background, so I can't say I'm listening.
11. Who is the first person who gets to read your manuscript?
Changes--depending on the manuscript.
12. Do you have a guilty pleasure read?
The "TLS."  Just kidding!  I don't feel guilty about it.
13. What’s on your nightstand right now?
Collected Poems of Rilke, Collected Cartoons of Roz Chast, book about miniature books, catalog from last year's Titian, Veronse and Tintoretto exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and "Ariel" by Sylvia Plath.  But I don't read in bed, so they are just keeping me company. 

14. What is the first book you remember reading?
First book I read on my own: "Little House in the Big Woods."
15. Did you always want to be a writer?
Pretty much.  I decided to be a writer when I was seven.  Before that I wanted to be a painter and my younger sister was going to be my art dealer.  As it turns out, I'm a novelist and she is an oncologist and hematology researcher.
16. What do you drink or eat while you write?
If I'm trying to be healthy: a tuna melt and a glass of orange juice.  If I'm just hunkering down and ignoring the outside world:  a peach yogurt, a bag of kettle corn and a bottle of spring water.
17. Typewriter, laptop, or pen & paper?
Netbook, pen and paper, and my favorite: giant presentation size Post-Its which I use to chart plot and character.  I stick them right up on the wall.
18. What did you do immediately after hearing that you were being published for the very first time?
I laughed!
19. How do you decide which narrative point of view to write from?
It's a bit like being a casting director.  You look out at your characters and think which of you should I cast to express this idea?  But the funny thing is that it works the other way too.  I look out at my ideas and think which of you would work best for this character?
20. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?
Time!  As my birthday approached last year I was getting really down because I was trying to write the last chapter of my novel, "The Cookbook Collector" but I had to stop of the three day fourth of July weekend.  My birthday, July fifth, fell out on the Monday after Independence Day, so my four kids were out of camp.  I said to my husband, "For my birthday this year could you take the kids for the day?"  He took them and I walked to my neighborhood coffee shop.  I arrived at about nine in the morning and stayed there for six hours, and I nailed that chapter.  I was so happy.  I wrote the last words of my book on my birthday.  Then I waltzed home and we all went to see the movie, "Up" in 3-D.  It was the best birthday ever.

Author links

  • Random House's "Author Feature Page" for Allegra Goodman
  • Author's Webpage
  • Publisher links:

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  • Previous Authors Asked 20 Writerly Questions

  • Richard Harvell
  • David Mitchell
  • Camilla Gibb
  • Alissa York
  • Justin Cronin
  • Holly LeCraw
  • Joan Thomas
  • Anosh Irani
  • Yann Martel
  • Joy Fielding
  • Andrew Kaufman
  • Beth Powning


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